Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Our path 'is not the only one available'

Wade Davis, in The Wayfinders: These lectures set out to ask 'why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world.' The phrase is somewhat flawed, implying as it does that these many remarkable peoples we have encountered are somehow vestigial, archaic voices stranded in time, having at best a vague advisory role to play in contemporary life. In truth, all the cultures I have referenced in these lectures -- the Tibetans and the San, the Arhuacos, Wiwas and Kogi, the Kiowa, Barasana, Makuna, Penan, Rendille, Tahltan, Gitxsan, Wet'suwet'en, Haida, Inuit, and all the peoples of Polynesia -- are very much alive and fighting not only for their cultural survival but also to take part in a global dialogue that will define the future of life on earth...

Why should their voices be heard? There are scores of reasons... but to sum up, two words will do. Climate change. There is no serious scientist alive who questions the severity and implications of this crisis, or the factors, decisions, and priorities that caused it to occur. It has come about because of the consequences of a particular world view. We have for three centuries now, as Thom Hartmann has written, consumed the ancient sunlight of the world. Our economic models are projections and arrows when they should be circles. To define perpetual growth on a finite planet as the sole measure of economic well-being is to engage in a form of slow collective suicide. To deny or exclude from the calculus of governance and economy the costs of violating the biological support system of life is the logic of delusion.

These voices matter because they can still be heard to remind us that there are indeed alternatives, other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual, and ecological space. This is not to suggest naively that we abandon everything and attempt to mimic the ways of non-industrial societies, or that any culture be asked to forfeit its right to benefit from the genius of technology. It is rather to draw inspiration and comfort from the fact that the path we have taken is not the only one available, that our destiny therefore is not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise. By their very existence the diverse cultures of the world bear witness to the folly of those who say that we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Astronomers find 10 times more universe

European Southern Observatory: Astronomers have long known that in many surveys of the very distant Universe, a large fraction of the total intrinsic light was not being observed. Now, thanks to an extremely deep survey using two of the four giant 8.2-metre telescopes that make up ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) and a unique custom-built filter, astronomers have determined that a large fraction of galaxies whose light took 10 billion years to reach us have gone undiscovered. The survey also helped uncover some of the faintest galaxies ever found at this early stage of the Universe.

Astronomers frequently use the strong, characteristic 'fingerprint' of light emitted by hydrogen known as the Lyman-alpha line, to probe the amount of stars formed in the very distant Universe... 'Astronomers always knew they were missing some fraction of the galaxies in Lyman-alpha surveys,' explains Matthew Hayes, the lead author of the paper, published in Nature, 'but for the first time we now have a measurement. The number of missed galaxies is substantial.'... Many galaxies, a proportion as high as 90%, go unseen by these surveys...

Different observational methods, targeting the light emitted at different wavelengths, will always lead to a view of the Universe that is only partially complete. The results of this survey issue a stark warning for cosmologists, as the strong Lyman-alpha signature becomes increasingly relied upon in examining the very first galaxies to form in the history of the Universe. 'Now that we know how much light we've been missing, we can start to create far more accurate representations of the cosmos, understanding better how quickly stars have formed at different times in the life of the Universe,' says co-author Miguel Mas-Hesse.
Image source here.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Israeli: 'The world is sick of us'

The plague of darkness has struck modern Israelites
Akiva Eldar, in Haaretz: One of the harshest of the 10 plagues has smitten the children of Israel this Passover, and they are stumbling about in pitch darkness, bumping blindly into anyone in their way as they head toward the edge of the precipice. Warm friends, cool friends, icy enemies... it's all the same.

And if that's not enough, the myopic Jewish state also has gone and collided head-on with the ally that offers existential support. Israel has become an environmental hazard and its own greatest threat. For 43 years, Israel has been ruled by people who have refused to see reality...

On [March 28]... the Arab League marked the eighth anniversary of its peace proposals, which offer Israel normalization in exchange for an end to occupation and an agreed solution to the refugee problem, in accordance with UN Resolution 194. But Israel behaves as if it had never heard of this historic initiative... Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu... simply refuses to see that the world is sick of us.

They never gave any thought to the decision by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations to turn Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's state-building plan from a unilateral initiative into an international project.

The Quartet declared that it was backing the plan, proposed in August 2008, to establish a Palestinian state within 24 months. This was an expression of the Palestinians' serious commitment that the state have a just and proper government and be a responsible neighbor. This means Israel has less than a year and a half to come to an agreement with the Palestinians on the permanent borders, Jerusalem, and the refugees. If the Palestinians stick to Fayyad's path, in August 2011, the international community, led by the United States, can be expected to recognize the West Bank and East Jerusalem as an independent country occupied by a foreign power.
Image: Gustave Doré, The Plague of Darkness; source here.

CIA: Manipulate Europe on Afghanistan

CIA report into shoring up Afghan war support in Western Europe, 11 March 2010 (.pdf)
Wikileaks: This classified CIA analysis from March outlines possible PR strategies to shore up public support in Germany and France for a continued war in Afghanistan. After the Dutch government fell on the issue of Dutch troops in Afghanistan last month, the CIA became worried that similar events could happen in the countries that post the third and fourth largest troop contingents to the ISAF mission. The proposed PR strategies focus on pressure points that have been identified within these countries. For France it is the sympathy of the public for Afghan refugees and women. For Germany it is the fear of the consequences of defeat (drugs, more refugees, terrorism) as well as for Germany's standing in NATO. The memo is a recipe for the targeted manipulation of public opinion in two NATO ally countries, written by the CIA. It is classified as Confidential/No Foreign Nationals.
Image source:

'We have shot an amazing number of people'

The New York Times: American and NATO troops firing from passing convoys and military checkpoints have killed 30 Afghans and wounded 80 others since last summer, but in no instance did the victims prove to be a danger to troops, according to military officials in Kabul. 'We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,' said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who became the senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan last year...

The persistence of deadly convoy and checkpoint shootings has led to growing resentment among Afghans fearful of Western troops and angry at what they see as the impunity with which the troops operate -- a friction that has turned villages firmly against the occupation. Many of the detainees at the military prison at Bagram Air Base joined the insurgency after the shootings of people they knew, said the senior NATO enlisted man in Afghanistan, Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall...

One such case was the death of Mohammed Yonus, a 36-year-old imam and a respected religious authority, who was killed two months ago in eastern Kabul while commuting to a madrasa where he taught 150 students. A passing military convoy raked his car with bullets, ripping open his chest as his two sons sat in the car...

'The people are tired of all these cruel actions by the foreigners, and we can't suffer it anymore,' said Naqibullah Samim, a village elder from Hodkail, where Mr. Yonus lived. 'The people do not have any other choice, they will rise against the government and fight them and the foreigners. There are a lot of cases of killing of innocent people.'... Numbers do not include shooting deaths caused by convoys guarded by private security contractors. Some tallies have put the total number of escalation of force deaths much higher.
Image source here.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Canada 'pandering' to US, 'sell out' on Israel

The Globe and Mail:
In the most scathing condemnation of Canada's growing silence before the world, Robert Fowler, the eminent diplomat who was kidnapped by Al Qaeda... relentlessly catalogued the 'wanton squandering of Canada's reputation,' as a respected voice within the dialogue of nations.

Domestic political posturing 'by politicians of every stripe in Canada as they compete to corner the 'ethnic vote' coupled with what he described as a relentless pandering to the superpower to the south has led to a 'small-minded, mean-spirited, me-first, little-Canada, whatever-the-Americans-want foreign policy.'...

Specifically, 'the scramble to lock up the Jewish vote in Canada' has caused this country to 'sell out our widely admired and long-established reputation for fairness and justice in the Middle East, in particular, for the cause of just settlement for the Palestinian people.'...

Mr. Fowler urged the abandonment of the mission in Afghanistan, arguing 'we will not prevail' because Canada and its allies are 'simply not prepared to foot the massive price in blood and treasure which it would take to effectively colonize Afghanistan... and replace their culture with ours, for that seems to be what we seek, and the Taliban share that view.'

Maclean's: Fowler charged the Liberals in the room with standing for little or nothing when it comes to foreign policy. He was even harder on the absent Conservatives, accusing their government of abandoning a Canadian legacy in the world, and, more specifically, of adopting an 'Israel, right or wrong' policy that has undermined Ottawa's credibility abroad. He asserted that there's an 'iron-clad link' between a failure to push for a fair resolution to the Israel-Palestine problem and the rise of Islamic terrorism.

For making this connection, he anticipated the ugliest sort of attack. 'It seems that anybody who presumes to acknowledge this blindingly obvious linkage is immediately labeled anti-Semitic,' Fowler said. He went on: 'I guess we are supposed to presume that the allure of jihad will inexorably dim as Israel builds ever more settlements in illegally occupied territories in contravention of a myriad of international judgments.'
Image: Canadian Press

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Turn off for Earth Hour

See what's possible.

'We think it's normal to be alone in the world'

Is human ancestor in Siberia new member of family tree?
Toronto Star: In the latest use of DNA to investigate the story of humankind, scientists have decoded genetic material from an unidentified human ancestor that lived in Siberia and concluded it might be a new member of the human family tree.

The DNA doesn't match modern humans or Neanderthals, two species that lived in the area around the same time -- 30,000 to 50,000 years ago... The finding emphasizes that quite unlike the present day, anatomically modern humans have often lived alongside their evolutionary relatives, one expert said...

Their analysis indicated the Siberian species last shared a common ancestor with modern humans and Neanderthals about 1 million years ago. That in turn suggests there was a previously unrecognized migration out of Africa around that time...

Bone May Reveal a New Human Group
The New York Times: The artifacts found in the cave in the same layer as the finger bone include ornaments and a bracelet... These are puzzling artifacts to be found with a nonmodern human species. But bones can move up and down in archaeological sites, and it is hard to know if the finger bone is truly associated with these artifacts... even though there is little sign of mixing in the cave's layers...

The valley beneath the Denisova cave 30,000 years ago would have been mostly a steppe, or treeless grassland, according to pollen analysis, and it was roamed by ice-age species like the wooly mammoth and woolly rhino...

As recently as 30,000 years ago, it now appears, there were five human species in the world... 'We think it's normal to be alone in the world as we are today,' Dr. [Ian] Tattersall said, and to see human evolution as a long trend leading to Homo sapiens. In fact, the tree has kept generating new branches that get cut off... 'The fossil record is very eloquent about this, and it's telling us we are an insuperable competitor.'
Image source here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Virtual Choir: Lux Aurumque

Composer Eric Whitacre distributed sheet music, asking vocalists to submit YouTube audition videos. He then posted a 'conductor track' to direct the choir. The result: 185 voices, 243 tracks, from 12 countries. The piece is 'Lux Aurumque,' by Whitacre, composed in 2000.
Listen to it here or here.

Image source here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Truth, lies, and NATO special ops

US-led forces in Afghanistan are committing atrocities, lying, and getting away with it
Nieman Watchdog: Jerome Starkey recently reported for The Times of London about a night raid on Feb. 12 in which US and Afghan gunmen opened fire on two pregnant women, a teenage girl and two local officials -- an atrocity which NATO's Afghanistan headquarters then tried to cover up... Starkey writes that the international forces led by US Gen. Stanley McChrystal are rarely called to account because most reporters are too dependent on access, security and the 'embed culture' to venture out and see what's happening for themselves...

Starkey: 'The only way I found out NATO had lied -- deliberately or otherwise -- was because I went to the scene of the raid, in Paktia province, and spent three days interviewing the survivors... It's not the first time I've found NATO lying, but this is perhaps the most harrowing instance, and every time I go through the same gamut of emotions. I am shocked and appalled that brave men in uniform misrepresent events. Then I feel naive.'

Times of London: Special forces and Western intelligence agencies that run covert operations in Afghanistan have been criticised for night raids based on dubious or false intelligence leading to civilian casualties... NATO said the troops were part of a joint 'Afghan-International' force, but, despite new rules requiring them to leave leaflets identifying their unit, the family said they left nothing... NATO's original statement said: 'Several insurgents engaged the joint firefight and were killed.' The family maintain that no one threw so much as a stone.

Times of London: 'Further allegations were also raised that US and Afghan forces refused to provide adequate and timely medical support to two people who sustained bullet injuries, resulting in their deaths hours later, the report added.'... Waheedullah, 22, one of the guests at the party [celebrating the birth of a baby] who works as an ambulance driver in Gardez, said... he saw a gunman with blond hair and a fair beard... The Americans were wearing 'wood yellow' clothes, he said, which were different from the regular army's green uniforms... 'The night raid was conducted by US Special Forces from Bagram, which arrived in Gardez says prior to the operation,' the report says.

The New York Times: Critics, including Afghan officials, human rights workers and some field commanders of conventional American forces, say that Special Operations forces have been responsible for a large number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and operate by their own rules...

On Feb. 21 in Oruzgan Province... attack helicopters killed 27 civilians in three trucks... Military video appeared to show the victims were civilians, and no weapons were recovered from them. 'What I saw on that video would not have led me to pull the trigger,' one NATO official said... 'It was one of the worst things I've seen in awhile.'...

On Feb. 12 in a village near Gardez, in Paktia Province, Afghan police special forces paired with American Special Operations forces raided a house late at night and... killed a local police chief and a district prosecutor... Three women who came to their aid... were also killed.

On Dec 26 in Kunar Province, a night raid was launched on what authorities thought was a Taliban training facility; they later discovered that they had killed all nine religious students in a residential school... All three events, which took place outside of any larger battle, involved Special Operations forces.
Image source here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Psychopaths want what they want

Psychopaths' brains wired to seek rewards, no matter the consequences Previous research on psychopathy has focused on what these individuals lack -- fear, empathy and interpersonal skills. The new research, however, examines what they have in abundance -- impulsivity, heightened attraction to rewards, and risk taking... It is these latter traits that are most closely linked with the violent and criminal aspects of psychopathy...

'There has been a long tradition of research on psychopathy that has focused on the lack of sensitivity to punishment and a lack of fear,'... David Zald... co-author of the study, said. 'Our data is suggesting that something might be happening on the other side of things. These individuals appear to have such a strong draw to reward... that it overwhelms the sense of risk.'...

Study volunteers were given a personality test to determine their level of psychopathic traits. These traits exist on a spectrum, with violent criminals falling at the extreme end of the spectrum. However, a normally functioning person can also have these traits, which include manipulativeness, egocentricity, aggression, and risk taking...

In the second portion of the experiment, the research subjects were told they would receive a monetary reward for completing a simple task... The researchers found in those individuals with elevated psychopathic traits the dopamine reward area of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, was much more active while they were anticipating the monetary reward than in the other volunteers.

'It may be that because of these exaggerated dopamine responses, once they focus on the chance to get a reward, psychopaths are unable to alter their attention until they get what they're after, [Jason] Buckholtz said. Added Zald, 'It's not just that they don't appreciate the potential threat, but that the anticipation or motivation for reward overwhelms those concerns.'
Image: nucleus accumbens highlighted; source here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Beware the backlash

The Sexes and the Sciences
Sheilla Jones, Literary Review of Canada: Author and engineering professor Monique Frize raises a startling proposition in The Bold and the Brave: A History of Women in Science and Engineering. It is, she notes, a myth that women's advancement in education and societal roles is a progression that is irreversible... Throughout recorded history, women have made considerable gains in gender parity with men, only to have those gains abruptly terminated or to see them slowly dissipate through societal change...

Women and men in Europe enjoyed relatively equal access to education in the 7th and 8th centuries because both had access to monasteries... The domination of Charlemagne, who wanted education only for men, as well as other upheavals, radically reduced the number of such monasteries...

Women's education in Europe saw another renaissance during the 12th and 13th centuries. Women educated at convents had considerable clout in society. Some wrote medical texts and performed surgery; others were ordained as deaconesses and bishops by the Catholic church and heard confession. Islamic women of the time had no limits on their access to education (except, perhaps, lack of money, but that was no different from European women), and women were actively involved in both funding and teaching at madrassas and mosques.

In Europe, the advancement and education of women ended in the 13th century, with the growth of universities such as those at Oxford and Paris, which restricted access to men only. The lot of European women took a further turn for the worse in the 14th century, as the intensifying panic over witchcraft meant many women became scapegoats for everything from the plague pandemic to local crop failures...

Initially, science and mathematics were considered vulgar and beneath the purview of learned men... It was not until educational reform in Europe in the 18th century that science and mathematics became the sole purview of men and off limits to women... Girls were deemed to require only the kind of education that was suitable to the private sphere of home and husband... Too much education was against their feminine 'nature' and would lead to mental impairment and damage their reproductive organs.

So, here we are in 2010, and it does, indeed, seem like a preposterous idea to imagine that the daughters or great-granddaughters of women who are fully engaged today in a modern and accommodating society such as Canada's might someday be relegated once again to domestic life and denied an education. But it should be remembered that it is not all that long ago that women in the modern western world gained access to high education and were allowed to participate in the public sphere.
Image source here.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The world needs more vegetarians

Environmental and Social Impact of the 'Livestock Revolution'
ScienceDaily: Global meat production has tripled in the past three decades and could double its present level by 2050, according to a new report... The impact of this 'livestock revolution' is likely to have significant consequences for human health, the environment and the global economy...

Among the key findings in the report [Livestock in a Changing Landscape (Island Press)] are:
  • More than 1.7 billion animals are used in livestock production worldwide and occupy more than one-fourth of the Earth's land.
  • Production of animal feed consumes about one-third of total arable land.
  • Livestock production accounts for approximately 40 percent of the global agricultural gross domestic product.
  • The livestock sector, including feed production and transport, is responsible for about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Although about 1 billion poor people worldwide derive at least some part of their livelihood from domesticated animals, the rapid growth of commercialized industrial livestock has reduced employment opportunities... [and] displaced many small, rural producers...

Human health also is affected by pathogens and harmful substances transmitted by livestock.. Emerging diseases, such as highly pathogenic avian influenza, are closely linked to changes in the livestock production...

The livestock sector is a major environmental polluter... Much of the world's pastureland has been degraded by grazing or feed production... and many forests have been clear-cut to make way for additional farmland. Feed production also requires intensive use of water, fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels...

Animal waste is another serious concern. 'Because only a third of the nutrients fed to animals are absorbed, animal waste is a leading factor in the pollution of land water resources,'... the authors wrote... The beef, pork and poultry industries also emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases...

'So much of the problem comes down to the individual consumer,' said co-editor Fritz Schneider of the Swiss College of Agriculture... 'I am hopeful that as people learn more, they do change their behavior. If they are informed that they do have choices to help build a more sustainable and equitable world, they can make better choices.'
Image source here.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Harpercons on climate change: 'bury the truth'

Climate-change scientists feel 'muzzled' by Ottawa: documents
National Post: A dramatic reduction in Canadian media coverage of climate change science issues is the result of the Harper government introducing new rules in 2007 to control interviews by Environment Canada scientists with journalists, says a newly released federal document.

'Scientists have noticed a major reduction in the number of requests, particularly from high profile media, who often have same-day deadlines,' said the Environment Canada document. 'Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80%'

The analysis reviewed the impact of a new federal communications policy... which required senior federal scientists to seek permission from the government prior to giving interviews. In many cases, the policy also required them to get approval from supervisors of written responses to the questions submitted by journalists before any interview... 'Our scientists are very frustrated wit the new process. They feel the intent of the policy is to prevent them from speaking to media.'...

The document also noted that government scientists voice their displeasure to communications officials about the policy during meetings in June 2008. A few months later, a couple of requests for interviews with scientists in the midst of the 2008 federal election campaign were never answered, including one request that was 'denied.'...

'It's definitely a scandal,' said Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada. He added that the government was 'muzzling scientists; they're putting climate deniers in key oversight positions over research, and they're reducing funding in key areas... It's almost as though they're making a conscious attempt to bury the truth.'
Image source here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

CIA used LSD on French town

French bread spiked with LSD in CIA experiment
The Telegraph: In 1951, a quiet, picturesque village in southern France was suddenly and mysteriously stuck down with mass insanity and hallucinations. At least five people died, dozens were interned in asylums and hundreds afflicted.

For decades it was assumed that the local bread had been unwittingly poisoned with a psychedelic mould. Now, however, an American investigative journalist has uncovered evidence suggesting the CIA peppered local food with the hallucinogenic drug LSD as part of a mind control experiment at the height of the Cold War...

On August 16, 1951, the inhabitants were suddenly racked with frightful hallucinations of terrifying beasts and fire. One man tried to drown himself, screaming that his belly was being eaten by snakes. An 11-year-old tried to strangle his grandmother. Another man shouted: 'I am a plane,' before jumping out of a second-floor window, breaking his legs... Another saw his heart escaping through his feet... Many were taken to the local asylum in strait jackets...

H P Abarelli Jr, an investigative journalist, claims the outbreak resulted from a covert experiment directed by the CIA and the US Army's top-secred Special Operations Division (SOD) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The scientists... worked for the Swiss-based Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company, which was then secretly supplying both the Army and CIA with LSD...

After the Korean War the Americans launched a vast research programme into the mental manipulation of prisoners and enemy troops. Scientists at Fort Detrick told him that agents had sprayed LSD into the air and also contaminated 'local food products.'...

The real 'smoking gun' was a White House document sent to members of the Rockefeller Commission formed in 1975 to investigate CIA abuses. It contained the names of a number of French nationals who had been secretly employed by the CIA and made direct reference to the 'Pont St. Esprit incident,' In its quest to research LSD as an offensive weapon... the Army also drugged over 5,700 unwitting American servicemen between 1953 and 1965.

Locals in Pont-Saint-Esprit still want to know why they were hit by such apocalyptic scenes. 'At the time people brought up the theory of an experiment aimed at controlling a popular revolt,' said Charles Granjoh, 71. 'I almost kicked the bucket,' he told the weekly French magazine Les Inrockuptibles. 'I'd like to know why.'
Image source here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Turkish temple complex 11,500 years old

History in the Remaking
Newsweek: A temple complex in Turkey that predates even the pyramids is rewriting the story of human evolution...

[Archaeologist Klaus] Schmidt has uncovered a vast and beautiful temple complex, a structure so ancient that it may be the very first thing human beings ever built... The temple was built 11,500 years ago... The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture... Schmidt thinks the temple itself, built after the end of the last Ice Age by hunter-gatherers, became... the spark that launched mankind toward farming, urban life, and all that followed.

Göbekli Tepe -- the name in Turkish for 'potbelly hill' -- lays art and religion squarely at the start of that journey... Schmidt has uncovered what he thinks is definitive proof that a huge ceremonial site flourished here... He has found carved and polished circles of stone, with terrazzo flooring and double benches. All the circles feature massive T-shaped pillars... including two that are not just the biggest yet, but, according to carbon dating, are the oldest monumental artworks in the world...

Schmidt's thesis is simple and bold: it was the urge to worship that brought mankind together in the first urban conglomerations. The need to build and maintain this temple, he says, drove the builders to seek stable food sources, like grains and animals that could be domesticated, and then to settle down to guard their new way of life. The temple begat the city...

Religion now appears so early in civilized life -- earlier than civilized life, if Schmidt is correct -- that some think it may be less a product of culture than a cause of it... Schmidt speculates that nomadic bands... were already gathering here for rituals, feasting, and initiation rites before the first stones were cut...

Unlike most discoveries from the ancient world, Göbekli Tepe was found intact, the stones upright... Most startling is the elaborate carving found on about half of the 50 pillars... graceful, naturalistic sculptures and bas-reliefs of the animals that were central to the imagination of hunter-gatherers... Many of the biggest pillars are carved with arms, including shoulders, elbows, and jointed fingers...

The temples thus offer unexpected proof that mankind emerged from the 140,000-year reign of hunter-gatherers with a ready vocabulary of spiritual imagery, and capable of huge logistical, economic, and political efforts... Whatever mysterious rituals were conducted in the temples, they ended abruptly before 8000 BC, when the entire site was buried, deliberately and all at once.
Image source here.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Equality increases health and happiness

Want the Good Life? Your Neighbours Need It, Too
Yes! Magazine: New research shows that, among developed countries, the healthiest and happiest aren't those with the highest incomes but those with the most equality. British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson... found that what the healthiest societies have in common is not that they have more... but that what they have is more equitably shared...

In his latest book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, co-written with Kate Pickett, Wilkinson details the pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, encouraging excessive consumption... Communities without large gaps between rich and poor are more resilient and their members live longer, happier lives.

Wilkinson: We looked at life expectancy, mental illness, teen birthrates, violence, the percent of populations in prison, and drug use. They were not just a little bit worse, but much worse, in more unequal countries... We know from the findings that it's the status divisions themselves that create the problems...

We quote a prison psychiatrist who spent 25 years talking to really violent men, and he says he has yet to see an act of violence which was not caused by people feeling disrespected, humiliated, or like they've lost face. Those are the triggers to violence, and they're more intense in more unequal societies, where status competition is intensified... We also found very big differences in the proportion of the population that's in prison... The differences aren't driven by the amount of crime, they're driven by the fact that people in unequal societies have more punitive attitudes...

It's not the inferior housing that gives you heart disease, it's the stress, the hopelessness, the anxiety, the depression you feel around that... Status competition causes problems all the way up... In more unequal countries, people are more likely to get into debt. They save less of their income and spend more. They work much longer hours... Inequality affects our ability to trust and our sense that we are part of a community...

Inequality is a reflection of how strong hierarchies are, how much we share or how much we don't. It shows us which part of our potential we're developing... In more equal societies, where there's a stronger community life, less violence, and more trust, people give a higher priority to the common good... Inequality changes our perceptions -- are you out for yourself, or do you recognize that we're in this together?
Image source here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Yankee go home!

Pacific Pushback:
Has the US Empire of Bases Reached Its High-Water Mark?

John Feffer, TomDispatch: Wherever the US military puts down its foot overseas, movements have sprung up to protest the military, social, and environmental consequences of its military bases. This anti-base movement has notched some successes, such as the shut-down of a US navy facility in Vieques, Puerto Rico, in 2003... On the heels of the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, democracy activists in the Philippines successfully closed down the ash-covered Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Station in 1991-1992. Later, South Korean activists managed to win closure of the huge Yongsan facility in downtown Seoul...

These were only partial victories... But these not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) victories were significant enough to help edge the Pentagon toward the adoption of a military doctrine that emphasizes mobility over position. The US military now relies on 'strategic flexibility' and 'rapid response' both to counter unexpected threats and to deal with allied fickleness...

NIMBY movements are likely to grow in Japan and across the region, focusing on other Okinawa bases, bases on the Japanese mainland, and elsewhere in the Pacific, including Guam. Indeed, protests are already building in Guam against the projected expansion of Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam to accommodate those Marines from Okinawa. And this strikes terror in the hearts of Pentagon planners...

NIMBY movements may someday finally push the US military out of Japan and off Okinawa. It's not likely to be a smooth process, nor is it likely to happen any time soon. But the kanji is on the wall. Even if the Yankees don't know what the Japanese characters mean, they can at least tell in which direction the exit arrow is pointing.
Image source here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Great Flood started here

World-altering collapse of ancient Canadian ice dam twice as massive as thought
Vancouver Sun: Dutch scientists probing deep layers of peat near the mouth of the Rhine River have shed fresh light on one of prehistoric Canada's most cataclysmic events -- the collapse of a glacial ice dam that sent a massive freshwater pulse into the Atlantic Ocean 8,500 years ago, radically altering the Earth's climate...

Their findings suggest the catastrophic drainage of Lake Agassiz -- a huge meltwater basin that covered nearly half of Canada at the end of the last ice age -- sent twice as much water into the sea as previously believed.

Since experts had already estimated the total Agassiz discharge as equivalent to '15 Lake Superiors' -- and linked the event to everything from the rise of agriculture in Europe to the ancient flood myths underlying the biblical story of Noah's Ark -- the proposed super-sizing of the Canadian gusher promises a deluge of new research into its effects on the world's climate, oceans and shorelines...

The worldwide climate impact of the Agassiz discharge -- first described in detail by University of Manitoba geologist James Teller -- has become a major focus of international researchers in the past decade... He found that with the lake at the greatest width and depth every in its 4,000-year lifespan, the glacier that had dammed Agassiz's northeastern shore broke somewhere along the icebound Hudson Bay about 8,500 years ago.

A huge torrent gushed into the ocean, draining the single greatest body of freshwater that has ever existed on the planet and profoundly altering the salinity, temperature and weather effects of the North Atlantic Ocean. Some of this country's earliest aboriginal occupants may have even witnessed the epic occurrence since the peopling of Canada roughly coincides with the retreat of the glaciers.
Image source here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What do they say?

Oldest 'writing' found on 60,000-year-old eggshells
New Scientist: Until recently, the first consistent evidence of symbolic communication came from the geometric shapes that appear alongside rock art all over the world, which date to 40,000 years ago... The engraved ostrich eggshells may change that. Since 1999, Pierre-Jean Texier of the University of Bordeaux, France, and his colleagues have uncovered 270 fragments of shell at the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in the Western Cape, South Africa.

They show the same symbols are used over and over again, and the team say there are signs that the symbols evolved over 5,000 years. This long-term repetition is a hallmark of symbolic communication and a sign of modern human thinking, say the team.

The eggshells were probably used as containers, and the markings may have indicated either the shells' contents or their owner. Texier points out that until recently, bushmen in the region carved geometric motifs on ostrich eggshells as a mark of ownership.

If the symbols do signify ownership, it could have implications for the evolution of human cognition. Iain Davidson, an Australian rock art specialist at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, has suggested that marking ownership must have come after humans became self-aware. The eggshells could help to illuminate when this happened in this part of the world...

Written language may have evolved more than once in human history. 'Judging from what we know about the evolution of art all over the world, there may have been many traditions that were born, lasted for some time and then vanished,' says Jean Clottes, former director of research at the Chauvet caves in southern France. 'This may be one of them, most probably not the first.'
Image source here.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Joanne Simpson, 1923-2010

Earth Observatory: Dr. Joanne Simpson, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in meteorology, died March 4, 2010, at the age of 86. Her groundbreaking, influential career spanned more than half a century...

In the photo above, taken in the 1950s, Simpson is bent over reams of images of clouds that she filmed during long flights between islands in the tropical Pacific. From the photos, she is drawing detailed maps of cloud formations These observations underpinned her first major contribution to atmospheric science: the boat-rocking hypothesis that tropical clouds weren't just the passive result of atmospheric circulation, as meteorologists of the day believed, but were in fact the cause of it...

Many scientists go their entire careers without the satisfaction of making such a significant contribution to their field... Her interest in tropical clouds was considered acceptable by the all-male faculty at the University of Chicago, where she earned her doctorate, because, as the department head told her, no one was very interested in them, so it was a good subject 'for a little girl to study.'

Washington Post: 'There is zero doubt that there has never been a more capable woman in meteorology, and she would also be in the top five of all meteorologists in history, no matter the gender,' said Greg Holland, director of the Earth Systems Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

She was candid about the number of obstacles she had to overcome... She became interested in clouds while learning to sail and later as a student pilot... She and two other women sought fellowships for doctoral work in meteorology. A faculty adviser said that no woman had ever received a doctorate in meteorology, none ever would. So she began saving for tuition by teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology...

In 1951, she became a research meteorologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, where... she constructed some of the first mathematical models of clouds. The Navy lent Woods Hole an old PBY-6A airplane, which they outfitted with scientific instruments. But Woods Hole's director said women were not allowed on its field trips. The naval officer who arranged the aircraft, however, told the director, 'No Joanne, no airplane.' She flew.
Image source here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

International Women's Day 2010

Image: Iranian poet and women's rights activist Simin Behbahani walks past a banner reading 'one million signatures to change the biased laws' during a press conference in Tehran. The file photo dated August 27, 2007. Today she faced a travel ban after being prevented from leaving to attend International Women's Day ceremonies in France. Source here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

'Sympathy is our strongest instinct'

Social Scientists Build Case for 'Survival of the Kindest'
ScienceDaily: Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish. In a wide range of studies, scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive...

Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist... and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits. They call it 'survival of the kindest.'

'Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others,' said Keltner... 'Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct.'...

The more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield... 'The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated,' [Robb] Willer said. 'But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers.'... Given how much is to be gained through generosity, social scientists increasingly wonder less why people are ever generous and more why they are ever selfish,' he added...

In one UC Berkeley study, for example, two people separated by a barrier took turns trying to communicate emotions to one another by touching... through a hole in the barrier. For the most part, participants were able to successfully communicate sympathy, love and gratitude and even assuage major anxiety... 'Sympathy is indeed wired into our brains and bodies; and it spreads from one person to another through touch.' Keitner said... Humans, if adequately nurtured and supported, tend to err on the side of compassion.
Image source here.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Methane release 'could trigger abrupt warming'

Arctic seabed methane stores destabilizing, venting
University of Alaska, Fairbanks: A section of the Arctic Ocean seafloor that holds vast stores of frozen methane is showing signs of instability and widespread venting of the powerful greenhouse gas... The research results... show that the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane, is perforated and is leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.

The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world's oceans,' said [Natalia] Shakhova, a researcher at UAF's International Arctic Research Center.

Methane is a greenhouse gas more than 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It is released from previously frozen soils... Methane can also be stored in the seabed as methane gas or methane hydrates and then released as subsea permafrost thaws. These releases can be larger and more abrupt than those that result from decomposition... Current average methane concentrations in the Arctic average about 1.85 parts per million, the highest in 400,000 years... Concentrations above the East Siberian Arctic Shelf are even higher...

They found that more than 80 percent of the deep water and greater than half of surface water had methane levels more than eight times that of normal seawater. In some areas, the saturation levels reached at least 250 times that of background levels in the summer and 1,400 times higher in the winter... The methane was not only being dissolved in the water, it was bubbling out into the atmosphere... Methane levels throughout the Arctic are usually 8 to 10 percent higher than the global baseline. When they flew over the shelf, they found methane at levels another 5 to 10 percent higher than the already elevated arctic levels.

'The release to the atmosphere of only one percent of the methane assumed to be stored in shallow hydrate deposits might alter the current atmospheric burden of methane up to 3 to 4 times,' Shakhova said. 'The climatic consequences of this are hard to predict.'
Image source here.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Breaking: Canadian officials, war crimes

Canada wanted Afghan prisoners tortured: lawyer
CBC News: Federal government documents on Afghan detainees suggest that Canadian officials intended some prisoners to be tortured in order to gather intelligence, according to a legal expert.

If the allegation is true, such actions would constitute a war crime, said University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran, who has been digging deep into the issue and told CBC News he has seen uncensored versions of government documents released last year.

'If these documents were released [in full], what they will show is that Canada partnered deliberately with the torturers in Afghanistan for the interrogation of detainees... There would be a question of rendition and a question of war crimes on the part of certain Canadian officials. That's what's in these documents, and that's why the government is covering it up as hard as it can.'...

Until now, the controversy has centred on whether the government turned a blind eye to abuse of Afghan detainees. However, Attaran said the full versions of the documents show that Canada went even further in intentionally handing over prisoners to torturers. 'And it wasn't accidental; it was done for a reason,' he said. 'It was done so that they could be interrogated using harsher methods.'...

Many facets of the issue remain top secret, such as the role of Canada's elite Joint Task Force 2, or JTF2. There have been hints that JTF2 might be handling so-called high value prisoners...

Opposition parties have been trying to get the Conservative government to release the uncensored versions of the documents pertaining to the handling of Afghan detainees... On Friday, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson asked former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci to review whether there would be 'injurious' effects if some Afghan detainee documents were made public... He is not a sitting judge and can't legally rule or force the government to do anything.
Image source here.